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A Summary of the Spanish American War

By Patrick McSherry

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The following is summary of the Spanish-American War - how and where it was fought. The war was a worldwide conflict physically fought in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Philippine Islands and Guam. It was also politically and diplomatically fought in Egypt. The war began with the blockade of Cuba in April, 1898. The war's fighting ended with an armistice on August 12, 1898, and the war concluded with signing of the Treaty of Paris on December 10, 1898

To read about the causes of the war, please click here. For a chronology or timeline of the war, click here.

The Summary:

The Spanish American War was a worldwide conflict, being fought in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and the Caribbean. It was fought in Spain, and her colonies – Cuba, Puerto Rico, Philippine Islands and Guam. It was fought in the United States, and diplomatically in the Vatican and in Egypt. Peripherally, it was fought in Hawaii, Germany and Great Britain.

The war’s outcome was determined very early in the conflict by the actions of the U.S. Navy. The Spanish naval force in the Philippines was destroyed in Manila Bay. The Spanish squadron in the Caribbean was effectively bottled up in Santiago’s harbor. With the United States now in control of the seas in the Philippine Islands and Caribbean, the Spanish colonies were cut off from reinforcement or resupply. The land actions in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines served to deliver the coup de grace to end the war.

As the calls for war grew, the Vatican, or more properly, the Catholic Bishop of Rome (the Pope) worked diplomatically to avoid a war. Negotiations were held to find a way for Spanish to meet the demands of the United States regarding Cuba. However, though the effort looked promising, the negotiations could not be completed before war was declared.

The first actual action in the Spanish American War was the declaration of a naval blockade of Cuba on April 22, 1898. After the United States’ demands that Cuba be granted its independence by Spain were not met, the American government declared war on April 25, retroactive to April 22.


The War in the Pacific

The next action major action in the war took place in the Philippines. The U.S. Navy’s Asiatic Squadron rendezvoused in Mirs Bay, China and steamed for the Philippines. The Spanish Squadron in the Philippines, aware of the enemy’s approach, took up a stationary position off Cavite so as not to draw fire on the city of Manila. The Asiatic Squadron entered Manila Bay and destroyed the Spanish Squadron in the Battle of Manila Bay on May 1, only days after war had been declared. Not having enough men to take Manila itself, the Asiatic Squadron set up a blockade of the city.

The blockade was generally respected by the various foreign powers present, such as the warships of  Great Britain. However, the notable exception was Germany. Much to the consternation of American Rear Admiral George Dewey, warships of Imperial Germanys did not respect the blockade and even landed troops near Manila. The violations were so flagrant that the U.S. Navy actually fired warning shots to stop German vessels, and when German officials questioned this action, Dewey reportedly threatened Germany with war. Great Britain supported the United States diplomatically in the dispute.

Simultaneously, negotiations were opened with the Philippine forces under Emilio Aguinaldo. The extent of the discussions between Dewey and Aguinaldo are not known, however both came away with different views. Aguinaldo believed that the U.S. would aid the Filipinos in gaining independence. Dewey stated that he made no such statement but forged an alliance of sorts. The issue was not resolved and, once the Spanish American War ended, the situation led to a separate conflict, the Philippine American War.

The first group of American troop reinforcements, led by the Cruiser CHARLESTON and consisting of several army transports, crossed the Pacific to join Dewey at Manila. The squadron detoured to capture the Spanish colony of Guam on June 20. This was the first territory captured by the United States. The victory was bloodless as Spain had neglected to inform their colony that a state of war existed. The CHARLESTON’s opening salvos against an abandoned fort were taken as a salute by the Spanish. Soon the surprised Spanish troops on the island were prisoners of war.

Once enough reinforcements were present, the American forces moved to take the city of Manila itself. The governor general of the Spanish forces at Manila and Admiral Dewey entered into negotiations. For the sake of Spanish honor, the Spanish stated that Manila could not surrender without a show of force by the Americans. By agreement, the Americans would open fire and the city would immediately surrender. As the action was about to occur, the British moved their vessels between the vessels of Germany and Dewey’s Squadron. The plan worked except that not all U.S forces or Spanish forces were privy to the agreement and some actual fighting occurred. The city fell to the American forces of August 13. Unknown to the forces in Manila, on the same day (August 12 in the U.S. and Spain), the United States and Spain had agreed to an armistice ending the fighting.

After what has been termed a “sham” battle, the Americans occupied Manila. The Filipino forces excluded from occupation of the city, and were not even permitted to enter Manila. From the Filipino point of view, the Americans had simply taken the place of the Spanish in Manila and were not a true ally. An uneasy truce existed between the Filipino forces and the American forces for the remainder of the Spanish American War, which ended with the Treaty of Paris on December 10, 1898. War would break out between the Americans and the Filipinos later, on February 4, 1899, starting the Philippine-American War, formerly mistakenly termed the Philippine Insurrection.

One sidelight to the war was that American forces frequently stopped at Hawaii as they passed between the Philippines and the United States, emphasizing the strategic importance of the islands. This, combined with the actions of American planters on the islands, finally led to the annexation of Hawaii by the U.S. on  July 7.

The War in the Atlantic:

The war in the Atlantic had started with the blockade of Cuba by the U.S. Navy mentioned above. The Vatican was actively negotiating with Spain and the United States to avoid a war, but time ran out. Once war was declared, both Spain and the United States first looked to protect their exposed coasts against enemy attack. In the U.S., it was known that Spanish Admiral Pascual Cervera’s squadron was on the move, and cities on the Atlantic seaboard attempted to fortify themselves for possible attack. Also, in an effort to increase the U.S. Navy’s firepower on the east coast, the Battleship OREGON was ordered to Florida from California. Its epic race around South America became an example of American naval prowess, and its technical capability.

War in the West Indies, 1898

War in the West Indies focussing on Cuba and Puerto Rico (Courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress)

The War in Cuba:

Once Admiral Cervera’s squadron was located in the harbor of Santiago, Cuba on May 29 and a blockade established, the value of the squadron simply became that of a squadron-in-being – a force that tied up U.S. Naval resources but that could not logically survive an attempt to leave its location. The Spanish squadron’a guns and trained men could serve to help defend the city.

The major actions in Cuba began with an attempt to cut the telegraph cables and eliminate telegraph communications between Cuba and Spain at Cienfuegos on May 11, 1898. The act of dragging the sea bottom to locate and raise and cut the cables was done by men in small sail and steam launches from the Cruisers MARBLEHEAD and NASHVILLE while under direct enemy fire at close range. Two cables were located and cut, but a third remained so the action did not fully cut communications as it had hoped. Forty-nine of the men involved earned Medals of Honor and three additional men were killed.

On June 2, an effort was made to block the channel leading to the harbor by scuttling the collier MERRIMAC in the channel by a small volunteer crew. The plan was to “bottle-up” Cervera’s squadron in the harbor, eliminating the threat of a Spanish naval sortie. The MERRIMAC, commanded by Naval Constructor Richmond Hobson, was sunk, but it did not obstruct the channel as hoped. Hobson and his crew were taken prisoner.

The next major action was the landing the of the First Marine Battalion at Guantanamo Bay on June 10. The U.S. Marine force, consisting of both infantry and artillery, landed and held an advanced beachhead. Then, at the Battle of Cuzco Well, attacked a numerically superior Spanish force and drove them back twelve miles. This eliminated land resistance in Guantanamo and allowed the bay to be used for coaling and as a refuge for the force blockading Santiago in case of hurricanes. It also defined the role of the U.S. Marine Corps for the next century. The deaths of the Marines involved were the first American deaths on the island of Cuba.

In June, the American army forces began landing on the Cuban coast at Daiquiri and Siboney from a thrown together flotilla of transports. Soon the troops began moving inland toward Santiago. On June 24, a skirmish occurred at Las Guasimas, a crossroad where the narrow paths leading from the beach landing points of the Fifth Army Corps to Santiago. At the jungle crossroads, Spanish forces made a stand against the leading forces of the Major General William Shafter’s Fifth Corps. The American forces involved included the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry (Roosevelt's “Rough Riders”), and the 1st and 10th U.S. Cavalry regiments, and supporting Cuban forces. The Spanish forces were pushed back, clearing the route to Santiago.

On July 1, the forces of  Major General William Shafter’s Fifth Corp began their assault on the ridges before the city of Santiago. The assaults were against El Caney, Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill. El Caney was expected to be taken in a short time, but the assault took most of the day. The assaults on Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill were also successful, and resulted in the American forces holding the heights overlooking the city.

On July 3, under orders, Admiral Cervera’s Spanish squadron sortied from Santiago harbor into the face of the larger blockading American squadron. The Battle of Santiago resulted on the loss of all four Spanish cruisers as well as two torpedo boat destroyers, with the Americans losing no vessels. 

On July 16, the Spanish troops defending Santiago and the surrounding area surrendered to Major General William Shafter. With this action, the fighting in Cuba basically ended.


The War in Puerto Rico:

The invasion of the island began on July 25, with the Americans fighting a series of skirmishes to gain control of a number of ports on the island’s southern coast. The initial landings were at Guanica. Soon the American forces had control of Ponce, Arroyo and Guayama

Next, the action began with a four-pronged campaign from the territory now held in the south of the island. The plan was to drive the Spanish towards the island’s capital of San Juan attempting to gain control of as much of the island as possible. Actions occurred at Coamo, the Heights of Silva, Heights of Guanamí, and also at Fajardo.

By the time of that the armistice was reached ending the fighting, American forces controlled about half of the island.

 Suez Canal, 1898

Stereocard of the Suez Canal in 1898 (Courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress)

War in Egypt
The war in Egypt is the least known aspect of the war, mainly because it was a war of military intelligence and covert action, without any weapons being fired. The action, however, had a profound impact on the progress of the war.

The Spanish had decided to dispatch Admiral Manuel de la Cámara y Libermoore with a powerful squadron – including the PELAYO, CARLOS V, and supporting vessels to the Philippines. The squadron departed Spain on June 16, with plans to proceed to the Philippines via the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal, and the Indian Ocean. However, having obtained news of the movement, the United States began a series of covert actions designed to slow the expedition and threaten the Spanish coast in an attempt to have the squadron recalled.

First, on June 18, the U.S. Navy formed the Eastern Squadron under Commodore John C. Watson, with orders to threaten the Spanish coast. The squadron was not actually formed in reality, mainly because it became unnecessary to do so. However the orders for the formation of the fleet and its purpose were purposely leaked to the Spanish government.

Additionally, working with Great Britain, American operatives such was lieutenant William Sims worked to slow Cámara’s Spanish squadron at the Suez Canal. First, under neutrality laws, the British refused to allow the Spanish to coal their ships in Egyptian waters. Separately, U.S. operatives had secured a lien controlling all available coal supplies so that Spain was unable to purchase needed coal. The Spanish squadron did eventually pass through the Suez Canal on July 5-6, but was recalled to Spain on July 7. The reason for the recall was the loss of Admiral Cervera’s squadron at the Battle of Santiago and the threat to the Spanish homeland represented by the unformed Eastern Squadron.

Armistice and the End of the War

Spain and the United States reached an agreement ending the fighting – an armistice - on August 12. Though no fighting occurred, the countries were officially at war until December 10, 1898 when the Treaty of Paris was signed, ending the Spanish American War.


Click here to learn about the casualties experienced by the United States and Spain.

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